It was written a thousand times: The Portland Trail Blazers reached a ceiling in the playoffs because defenses could throw every defender at Damian Lillard and not worry about any repercussions. With so-so shooters in Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless on the wings and a traditional center in the paint, simply not enough space existed for the back court to operate.
This season was supposed to be different. The Blazers signed Rodney Hood and Anthony Tolliver and traded for Kent Bazemore; all three were proven shooters. With some development by Zach Collins and Mario Hezonja, Portland could run any lineup and have at least four tolerable shooters dotting the perimeter.
But with injuries to Hood and Collins, struggles from Bazemore and Tolliver, and no immediate development by Hezonja or Nassir Little, the Blazers find themselves in a similar situation as years prior. And without the passing of Jusuf Nurkic out of pick and rolls, there’s more pressure on Lillard and CJ McCollum to find the open man when the defense collapses.
Nonetheless, the Blazers are shooting 1.4 more corner threes per game this season than in 2018-19. They still rank 21st in the league for three-point attempts from the corner (6.4) and are only converting 37.5% of them – 19th in the league.
Since Hood’s injury, that shooting percentage has dipped nearly 2%; he was the team’s most prolific corner three-point shooter.
To better exploit the opposing defense’s neglect of Portland’s wings, more cuts need to happen.
When Whiteside sets a high screen and Lillard gets going downhill, a wing defender generally steps in to obstruct his clear path to the rim. If the two Blazers wings stand within feet of each other on the perimeter, the remaining defender can deter a pass to either. If one wing rotates to the top of the arc, Lillard has a hard time finding him because he frequently picks up his dribble and must pass or shoot through a tight window.
In either scenario, Lillard forces an attempt at the hoop, forces a pass to a slowly rolling Whiteside, or forces a skip pass to a mildly guarded, humdrum shooter. None of these outcomes are optimal.
Here, Lillard would have a difficult time rotating 180-degrees and finding Simons at the top of the arc. Terence Davis appropriately rotates to stymie a pass to Carmelo Anthony in the corner, and Lillard is stuck with a contested layup over OG Anunoby.
If one of Portland’s wings cuts, the defender tasked to two players must decide to stick with the cutter or remain on the perimeter, leading to an open look in one of the two spots.
As Whiteside is the team’s only remaining true center, pick and rolls kickstarting this offense can instead be pick and pops when the big man sits. No rolling screener leaves more room in the paint for a cutter to run into, and it doesn’t bring a rim defender into the clogged paint.
Here, Skal Labissiere doesn’t reach the paint and roughly mimics the spacing of a pick and pop. Harrison Barnes is caught between picking up Little on the cut when Yogi Ferrell goes to help or remaining with Bazemore on the perimeter. It leads to a dunk.
The two weak side wings will have to read the floor before deciding to slash. If the lone exterior defender doesn’t make the proper rotation, Lillard can find one of the two open for an uncontested corner three. If he does make the rotation, then one can cut if the lane isn’t too congested.
Here, Bazemore stays in the corner because of how many bodies are in the paint. Simons finds him and David Nwaba’s rotation is too late, leading to an uncontested triple.
Little and Hezonja are the prime candidates to force the defense’s hand with these types of cuts. A surefire two points at the rim is preferred to a somewhat open three-pointer for both. The slash can distract defenders and leave a better shooter, like Anfernee Simons or McCollum, open for a higher-percentage look as well.
The Blazers offense can use a little extra ball movement and a few more uncontested shot opportunities. Forcing the defense to scramble because of off-ball movement like weak side cuts will generate that and hopefully diversify Portland’s one-dimensional offense.